When Simileoluwa Adebajo first saw the thick black smoke, she didn’t know it was her kitchen burning. The realization hit her as she walked from the bus stop and neared the five-alarm fire that engulfed six buildings, including the one that housed her commissary kitchen that she had moved into just days before.
Gone were all the equipment and ingredients — kegs of red palm oil, sacks of garri (cassava flakes), specialty drinks like Chapman and Maltina — that she had brought for Èkó Kitchen, San Francisco’s first Nigerian restaurant. She could smell her spice — a blend of hot pepper, ginger and ground peanuts used on grilled meats — singeing in the air. “So the building is burning down and all I can think is ‘My spices! My spices!'” She says.
A little more than a year before the fire, in April 2019, Adebajo had quit her full-time job as a financial analyst to open her restaurant. What was once a defense against homesickness, grilling chicken suya, cooking smoky jollof rice and frying plantains, became the 26-year-old’s passion project, motivated by reasons both personal and political.
Before the pandemic and before the fire, Èkó Kitchen’s weekly Sunday Suppers, with festive family-style meals set to Nigerian hip-hop, were a tribute to Adebajo’s paternal grandmother. Every Sunday in Lagos, Esther Oyindamola Adebajo would gather 20 or so of her sons and daughters and grandchildren (Adebajo comes from a large family — her father is one of 10 children and her mother one of 21) around the table and heap it with a cooler (yes, a cooler!) of rice and fiery stews like ayamase, a braise of all parts of the cow — tripe, intestines and skin — with green peppers.
“It was so spicy that she would always leave six giant bottles of water on the table for us because we needed to drink water while we ate it and immediately after but it was so good you kept eating,” Adebajo remembers. It was everything that she says characterizes Nigerian food: bold, flavorful, spicy, soulful. “It was a way to recap our weeks and to share challenges and victories. We left feeling that next week would be better just because we were able to talk to each other about it.”
The girls in the family were made to help in the kitchen, but “until I moved to San Francisco, I didn’t know I could replicate [her] recipes, “Adebajo says.” I missed home food, and I was just thinking about how she used to make it, and I’m like, let me try. “She found that after all those years watching and tasting, she knew more than she realized, like the right way to scoop puff puff batter between her fingers then drop it into hot oil for the cinnamon-sugar-dusted donuts.
Adebajo was born in Queens, New York, but her parents moved the family to Lagos, Nigeria, when she was 7 to have support in raising their children. Adebajo returned to the US when she was 21 to pursue a master’s degree in international developmental economics at the University of San Francisco.
“I am only bringing this one perspective to the table,” Adebajo says. “Hopefully over time I can bring in other Nigerian voices, somebody who cooks Igbo or Hausa food. There are different types of cuisines in Nigeria, and as I tell people, Nigeria is the most populous Black nation in the world,” with 215 million people. It was also the longtime poverty capital of the world (recently surpassed by India), where more than one-third of the people live below the poverty line.
“I have to use my platform to give back to the culture that I am promoting,” she says. On the abstract level, it’s informing diners of the scale of the problem; on the tangible level, it’s personally importing indigenous ingredients like red palm oil and garri to support producers in Nigeria.
But after setbacks from the pandemic, and then watching a blaze level her kitchen, she thought about giving up and bought a one-way ticket to Lagos. But then she remembered where she came from. Her great-grandmother created a union in Nigeria that protected market women from extortion. Her maternal grandmother was a textile magnate in Ibadan. Adebajo remembered something she read: “Do you know how powerful you are when you admit to yourself that there’s power in your bloodline, and your ancestors passed that power?”
So she rebuilt. And more. She found a new kitchen and prepared meals for vulnerable families affected by the pandemic through a partnership with the nonprofit SF New Deal. She hosts pop-up dinners and has taken them to New York and Los Angeles. She has transitioned into primarily a catering company, while also hosting virtual cooking classes, complete with ingredient boxes sent to the participants, and self-published a cookbook, From Èkó with Love: A Guide to Modern Nigerian Cooking. She rebuilt — to tell her own stories and those from Nigeria.
This reddish-brown ground pepper is made from fiery dried Scotch bonnet chiles.
Cooks use this powder, made from dried and ground crayfish, to add flavor to soups and rice dishes.
Made from ground dried gourd seeds, this powder thickens its namesake soup.
Made of fermented and roasted cassava, garri is often used to make a lightly sweetened porridge as well as a starchy ball called a swallow that’s served alongside soups and stews for dipping and scooping.
Harvested from the pods of African locust bean trees then fermented, iru gives deep umami flavor to soups, stews and more.
If you’ve cooked or eaten black-eyed peas, honey beans will look familiar — they have a similar “eye” on the inward curve but are a darker hue.
Sometimes referred to as Nigerian pepper sauce, it’s made with stewed bell and habanero peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices.
Extracted from the palm tree oil, this oil gets its deep red hue from healthful antioxidant pigments called carotenoids, which are important for eye health. Its high smoke point makes it a good choice for frying.
This spice blend, which usually includes hot peppers, paprika, ginger and ground peanuts, is often used on skewered beef or chicken. The spicy skewered meat is generally referred to as suya throughout West African countries.